Google has just launched Hotpot, a personalized recommendations engine based on what you like and what your friends like.
When Facebook launched Places to compete with Foursquare, we here at Search Engine Land explained how even though it had the same name as Google Places, it was actually entirely different. After all, you don’t check in to Google Places. In addition, neither of these should be confused with the Buzz layer on mobile Google Maps or the ability to post a Buzz update via your mobile device that sends your location as a de factor check in. Or, even Google Latitude, which broadcasts your location.
Google Hotpot (which I kept reading as “hotspot” and now keep thinking of as “top pot”, as in donuts) isn’t any of those things. Launched tonight as an “early release”, Hotpot uses Google Places data and overlays reviews and ratings from you and your friends. It recommends places based on how you’ve rated similar things. Might it eventually be merged with Google’s other location, social, and other services to provide a robust Foursquare-like experience? It seems logical but for now at least, it’s entirely separate.
So separate, in fact, that you have to create a separate profile and friends list than what you have already as part of your Google account (through your Google Profile, Buzz friends list, Gmail profile, etc.).
At first, I thought this was an entirely different profile, as none of your friends from those other places are added as friends here. But there is some connection, as you can see below.
I think the idea here is that if you rate or review a place, that’s public no matter what. But you can set the name and photo that are associated with those ratings and reviews to something other than your Google Profile so that you can be anonymous publicly. And you have to add friends again and have them confirm you.
Google told me:
Users’ ratings and reviews appear only in the Places profile, not in the Google profile. We have done this to ensure that users have control over how their reviews appear to the public.
What Your Friends Like
Once you have friends, their ratings and reviews will show up when Google Places information appears in search results (such as local results in Google searches or Google Maps searches). In addition, you can use Hotpot directly through Places search.
The Game Of Rating
Once you’ve done set your profile, you can go through a (short) list of nearby places and rate them, a la old school Amazon recommendations. The more items you rate, the better Google can predict what you might like and recommend it to you.
You can even leave “tips” about places:
Once you’ve rated five places, you get to see a list of new places.
You can apparently choose up to ten places to be “best ever”:
Google also tries to motivate you to rate things by pitting you against your friends for “top influencer”, which as you can see below, probably only works once you have friends.
In the above photo, you can see part of the confusion with having a sort of separate profile. My Google Profile seems to have a separate account from my Google Hotpot profile… sort of. I give up on figuring that one out.
You can download the Android app so you can rate things as you try them.
What About Privacy?
As noted above, while any new ratings or reviews you add are public, you can associate a name and photo with them that’s different than what you use with your friends. And you have to confirm friends within this system separately, so you can choose who knows that it’s really you doing that ranting about the coffee shop down the street.
Hotpot personalizes recommendations, which includes signals from places you’ve searched for in the past. That Google saves and uses your search history isn’t new, of course, but Hotpot provides a bold reminder. Oh hey, I searched for all those places on Google Maps recently, didn’t I?
None of this information is public though. It’s only seen by you and Google.
What About SEO For Local Businesses and Review Sites?
As with Google Places, Google draws on photo, review, and location information from other web sites for Hotpot. And they credit those sites accordingly. If you can optimize your site to be the source for those reviews and photos, you may get some clicks from those viewing the Hotpot pages, right? I think this will definitely be the case, but things aren’t quite that smooth yet.
In some cases, the link doesn’t go to the page you might expect. Some of the time, you can still take advantage of the clicks by making sure every page of your site operates as an entry page for visitors: make it obvious what site they’re on, provide a call to action to keep them on the site. In other cases, there’s not much a site can do for now as some links go directly to photos or iframes within content.
For example, take a look at the following places in Seattle:
The first photo, for Wild Ginger, links to urbanspoon.com. But when I click the link, I am brought to a collection of photos on a user page, rather than the Urban Spoon page that profiles Wild Ginger.
Worse is the link to cityguide.com. As you can see from the URL, the link isn’t to the page that profiles the restaurant, but rather, to the CMS that stores this section of text:
Likely, some of these kinds will be worked out by Google, but in many cases, the trouble is likely with the site infrastructure, so it’s more important than ever to make sure that your pages are crawlable.
How Does Hotpot Fit In To Google’s Local Offerings?
On its own, Hotpot isn’t necessarily that different than what’s available elsewhere (such as on Urban Spoon, Yelp, and Facebook). But as part of a larger social and local combination (the pieces of which Google mostly has already), it could be very compelling. Particularly if Google partnered with someone like Foursquare, Google could vastly improve their personalization by not just what you search for, but by what you actually like. We’ll have to watch and see if they can fulfill on this promise.